Science Olympiad Advice

Recently, a topic came up on scioly.org: “Is Science Olympiad worth it?” A frus­trated student was down on his luck with his team at a compe­ti­tion, and got all exis­ten­tial… sort of. As I thought about my reply, it grew and grew, and soon it wasn’t a simple answer to his ques­tion any more, but it seems advice for anyone doing Science Olympiad (“SO,” “SciOly”). This was my response:

Every­one else seems to have covered the team aspect of SO, but my expe­ri­ence was quite differ­ent. I wasn’t on super compet­i­tive teams, I’ve never been to Nation­als, and I never had a coach for my events.

What I got out of SO was expe­ri­ence, the expe­ri­ence, and expe­ri­ences. When I first joined scioly.org, which is not long after I started doing Science Olympiad, I was of course very young. 🙂 I joined so I could find out more about Wright Stuff. I posted dumb posts, I didn’t always read or search before post­ing, and I even spammed. It took a long time for me to really get straight­ened out, but now I’m admin (a fact I still find shock­ing). But the point is, spend­ing time with my two terrific teams and a commu­nity like this actu­ally helped me grow up.

I also learned a good 80% of what I know about build­ing things, every­thing about elec­tron­ics, and a lot about comput­ers from SO work. For exam­ple, just on this forum there was a little inci­dent where I tried to imitate relpats-eht‘s avatar. It taught me a bunch about image compres­sion, making animated GIFs, and image palettes. Now I’m work­ing in and study­ing computer graph­ics; I might even make it my living.

It wasn’t just tech­ni­cal stuff I learned. One of the more useful skills I learned was how to learn. More specif­i­cally, how to learn when you’re not in school and you have no teacher. I never had a coach that knew my events better than I did, and in high school, I didn’t have a coach at all; it was a wholly student-run team. Every­thing about SO I learned I had to learn on my own from scioly.org, books, and anything else I could get my hands on. This left me the ques­tion of summers.

I loved SO. But there were no rules out in the summer. One might think, naïvely, that he should spend the summer build­ing to the previ­ous season’s rules. No. First off, it’s impor­tant to take a vaca­tion. Get some down­time, even if it’s less appeal­ing than SO because of your burn­ing lust for winning next year (which you should defi­nitely have).

Then, my project for the summer would have noth­ing to do with SO at all, and would be as diffi­cult and time-consum­ing (and more!) than the summer or my expe­ri­ence could possi­bly afford. My three summer projects in high school were, in reverse order: (1) Put a vision-based guid­ance system for my robot­ics heli­copter (2) Build a quadro­tor heli­copter while hack­ing OS X to run on PCs (3) Build a quadriped robot.

I almost never got the projects done by the time school started; we NYC kids got stuck with the same school sched­ule as upstate NY kids, minus the not insignif­i­cant snow days, having had perhaps two of those in my ten years of service under the NYCDOE. So we had very short summer vaca­tions.

Still, what­ever it was I did in the summer, I was guar­an­teed that I could success­fully use it in the next season. If you spent the summer build­ing a better battery-and-motor cart with wheels, you might learn how to make your next cart go straighter and truer. You spend the summer build­ing a robotic heli­copter, or even trying to build a robotic heli­copter, and you’ll learn how to design your next cart in 3D para­met­ric CAD, preci­sion machine it from impact-resis­tant PETG, and code a propor­tional control loop for its C-programmed micro­con­troller so you can hit arbi­trary run times, distances, and targets just by punch­ing in numbers. And do it cheaply too; my parents are not wealthy and didn’t really like me spend­ing money on robots. 🙂

When you have off time, don’t waste it on work; do some­thing you absolutely never thought of doing, but that you might like. Sing, play Ulti­mate with your team, try to increase the defi­n­i­tion of your abs. At some point, I was figur­ing out how to keep as accu­rate time as possi­ble. It netted me a neat watch and knowl­edge I was proud of. Then it got turned into an event. bah got me to start play­ing with foun­tain pens. My first foun­tain pen ever will be in my hand in a few days.

And finally to cap this post, which has winded far too verbose already, I learned qual­ity from SO. You know the real differ­ence between a family-owned German company and a Chinese manu­fac­tur­ing mega-corpo­ra­tion? The German company tries to create a qual­ity prod­uct and lets it attract the money. The Chinese corpo­ra­tion looks to the bottom line first—quality comes second (or even later than that). Qual­ity needs to come first in SO, and the medals will follow natu­rally.

I built with more qual­ity than was needed in the first place. My descrip­tion of the afore­men­tioned “cart” was of my 2009 Elec­tric Vehi­cle. It was pretty overkill, to be honest, consid­er­ing I didn’t expect my team to make it beyond NY states (it didn’t). However, it worked out pretty well. I beat FM with a gold medal and they got second in EV at Nation­als, so it was like I got second at Nats (I didn’t).

Some­times it doesn’t work out. My Wright Stuff planes in 2007 used rolled tubes and were biplane designs. I was really ambi­tious and didn’t completely know what I was doing. Yet some­how, all the tubes I rolled that year had zero curva­ture. That is simply magi­cal, if you under­stand what I’m talk­ing about. They really didn’t end up flying all that well, though that may be because I was spend­ing less time on WS that year than before, but they were butter­fly impres­sive. I was proud of my planes even if they didn’t net me the medal which I wasn’t aiming for in the first place. Heck, my states plane from that year is still the exam­ple photo on the Wright Stuff Wiki.

I won either way, because qual­ity was on my side, because I knew I grew up on it all, and because I knew more than the suck­ers who didn’t do SO. So if you’re a senior this year, don’t feel like you have to win and cap your career with a bang. Go to compe­ti­tion with open eyes and make some memo­ries while you remi­nisce on the good times past. All my team­mates know as well as I do I got that gold medal caring zero about it (mostly because of getting rejected from MIT days before, but also for all the reasons I mentioned above). Don’t forget to wipe your tears when you take your bus home—or plane, car, train, boat…